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Posts Tagged ‘Alessandro Baricco’

I’ve decided to do a top 20 fiction list this year with 6 additional books in other categories (a children’s book, 3 non-fiction, and 2 graphic novels).The fiction list is split into halves:
THE TOP 10 (in no particular order, because frankly they each have their individual charms)

These were my 10 favourite reads of the year. Some of them were published in 2014, some not.

One of my favourite reads of 2014.

One of my favourite reads of 2014.

Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco: A quiet but incredibly powerful book (a pair of linked novellas). The prose is lovely and deceptively simple. It is like looking into a pool of crystal clear water. You can see the bottom, but once you dive in you realize it is much deeper than it appears to be. It is the story of a writer vows to never write another book, and instead becomes a copyist, producing intimate “portraits” of people in writing.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: A book I regret not reading sooner, but that I doubt I would have appreciated had I read it sooner. A near perfect book read at the perfect time.

No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-Jin: One of the Library of Korean Literature titles from Dalkey Archive Press that (full disclosure) I edited while working in Dublin as an unpaid intern there. This was my favourite of the series of 10 Korean novels that I edited. It is an unusual and moving story about the need for communication and connection and the ways we cope with tragedy and grief.

The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant: I loved this book about an indifferent rent collector who is unable to remain indifferent to the suffering of his tenants and embarks upon a comical and desperate scheme to improve their lives.

Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken: Hands down, my favourite short story collection of the year. Each story revolves around grief, loss, and ways in which the ripples from those emotions affect others.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer: My description of this book to friends is mostly expletives followed by, “Just buy it.” Authority is also awesome and I’m sure the entire Southern Reach Trilogy would be on this list, but the flu kept me from getting to Acceptance, so I’ll just put the first book on here and let you discover the rest on your own.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: Intense, terrifying, moving, imaginative. Basically, it is Gaiman. Just read it.

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli: Polyphonic and fragmentary. Narrative worlds weave in and out of one another in surreal ways. A woman in Mexico City writing about her past in New York and about an obscure poet from the 1920s, Gilberto Owen, who comes to life through her reflections. Masterful. Excellent translation.

Sweetland by Michael Crummey: A story about landscape, identity, community, and the tragedies and truths that shape our lives set on an island off the Newfoundland coast. Also about the things we can’t leave behind. Funny, haunting.

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki: The story of a small Angolan beach community threatened with destruction by the Soviets for the sake of the construction of a monument to a dead dictator. Contains a memorable cast of characters: the children with a cunning plan, a mad Cuban called Sea Foam, a ghost, a lovesick Russian, and a gangrenous granny, among others. Excellent translation by Stephen Henighan.
The Next 10 (again, in no particular order)

I read too many really good books this year to limit myself to a top 10, so here’s the next 10 good reads on my list.

The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker: Atmospheric, creepy, and elegantly told tale of Arthor Crandle, a fellow down on his luck who takes a position as an assistant to none other than H.P. Lovecraft., the godfather of weird fiction.

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson: An intense and moving story of a father-son relationship. The imagery is incredibly vivid and almost magical realist or fabulist in the first half of the book. The narrative shift in the second half changes the tone but manages to maintain the tension in the narrative. Excellent read, excellent translation.

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes: Another book that’s been around for ages, but that I’m only getting to now. I’ve worked my way backwards through Rhodes’ catalogue and can say with confidence that no one can write about the macabre and the melancholy with such humour and wit. Ultimately, Rhodes writes about love, and ultimately, his books are uplifting, but prepare to have your heart broken in the process. (You will also laugh, and cry, and probably chuck the book against the wall. This is all normal.)

The Martian by Andy Weir: Think MacGyver and Castaway and Apollo 13. Space is awesome. Stylistically, the prose is not going to blow you away, but somehow that doesn’t even matter. The story is so compelling and so cool, because space is cool, and NASA is cool, and Mars is cool, that you won’t be able to stop reading.

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray: Post-war Welsh-English border. Country estate. One terrifying ghost. Tiffany Murray is an excellent storyteller. I may never forgive her for the moth thing though.

A by André Alexis: A book reviewer from Toronto obsessed with an elusive poet tracks him down in an attempt to understand the creative act. The meeting of critic and artist/hero changes both lives and provides an interesting read/meditation on inspiration and literary creation.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: Structurally very innovative. Incredibly moving. Looking forward to A God in Ruins which continues Teddy’s story.

Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill: Portrait of a marriage in vignettes. Moving and insightful.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher: Hilarious (but also painfully close to the mark) academic satire told entirely in the letters of reference from one faculty member at a small college. I laughed a lot.

The Age of Magic by Ben Okri: While this novel left me colder than some of Okri’s other works, it is full of ideas and Faustian allusions, and some of the passages in the middle of the book are quite marvellous.

The Children’s/YA Book (but awesome for everyone even grown-ups; start with the first in the series)

I usually read a few more children’s or young adult books, but for some reason or other, I just ran out of time this year. I do have a couple of Jonathan Auxier’s books on my nightstand though, and they look great. However, I think everyone should read the Iremonger trilogy because it is the best. THE. BEST. (Which is saying something, because it currently only has two books in it).

Best. Kids' Series. Ever.

Best. Kids’ Series. Ever.

Foulsham (book 2 of the Iremonger trilogy) by Edward Carey (or, if you live in North America, Heap House (book 1 of the Iremonger trilogy), which was published over here in 2014): Continuation of the Iremonger trilogy. One of the most original stories I have read in years. Includes Carey’s marvellous illustrations of the characters and settings.
The Non-Fiction

I’m only recently coming around to reading non-fiction. These ones really grabbed me this year.

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund: I loved this book. It is an absolute blast to read. Conversational, debate-provoking, visually stunning.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison: Insightful essays about fascinating topics from an engaging personal perspective.

Youth: Autobiographical Writings by Wolfgang Koeppen: Post-modern memoir. Fascinating stuff.

The Graphic Novels

I’m also new to graphic storytelling (aside from some Dark Knight Returns etc in university), but these two were supercool and I’ll be seeking out more like them at Happy Harbor.

Through The Woods by Emily Carroll: Stunning art, 5 original dark fairy tales. Good luck sleeping.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins: The title alone should be enough to make you read this.

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Because my Novellas in November wrap-up was torpedoed by a nasty bout of flu followed quickly by hectic end of term chaos, here is the final word on that project .

I read a few novellas to close out the year, because illness and work had robbed me of a proper finish to my Novellas in November. The first was Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco (McSweeney’s). I think this was my favourite book of the year (tied with Foulsham). A writer who decides to stop writing books and takes to writing intimate “portraits” of people before he disappears. The clarity of the prose and the simplicity of the plot may lull the reader into thinking this is a simple story, but it is like looking into a pool of crystal clear water. What at first may appear shallow is revealed to have tremendous depth once you are immersed in it. One of the few 5 star books of my reading year.

Perhaps it was because I read it following Mr. Gwyn, but The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami was a tremendous disappointment. The best part of the whole book was Chip Kidd’s design work. I appreciated the return of some of Murakami’s characters and motifs as well as some of the little quirks of the story (like the Ottoman tax record thing), but all in all, I thought this novella was a disaster.

I finished the year with Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (Biblioasis). This was a great romp, set in Luanda, Angola, in the 1980s and peopled with a marvelous cast of characters. The children (playful, mischievous, but thankfully not the tired clichés of the “precocious prodigies”) are determined to prevent the Soviet occupying forces from displacing their community for the purpose of building a mausoleum for a dictator. Lively characters and lots of layers.

Something I noticed after the first couple of weeks of Novellas in November: as much as I enjoy reading novellas, reading so many in succession started to feel like eating nothing but appetizers for supper for weeks on end. By the halfway point, I was craving something more meaty. Novellas are a specialty narrative, and as such they make narrative choices, sacrificing certain elements in favour of others (choosing character over a sense of place, for example). This is what can make them so intense and impactful. However, like a college kid living on appetizers and beer, eventually, I began to crave those elements that were lacking in my novella diet. So, while I love novellas (and I do read a lot of them), I’d rather intersperse them with longer reading material so my reading diet is more balanced. .

I read a number of other novellas throughout the rest of the year that were brilliant, and I think Novellas in November is a great time to bring them up. If you are looking for excellent short reads, here are a few that I’ve read recently that I would highly recommend:

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press)

A by André Alexis (BookThug)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Peirene Press)

The Blue Fox by Sjón (FSG)

The Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Knopf)

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When the inaugural Man Booker International Prize was awarded in 2005 to Ismail Kadare (an Albanian author previously unknown to me who now ranks among my favourite writers — especially his novel, The Palace of Dreams), I was overjoyed. Too long had I found the Man Booker Prize sort of dull and full of the same old, same old literary fiction, (often high quality, but rarely surprising). Here, however, was a prize that was “international” in scope and welcomed literature in translation. Just think of the new authors and untapped regional writing that global audiences would be introduced to! The prize is only awarded every two years, so the wait for the next prize was a tortuous one. When it was finally awarded to Chinua Achebe in 2007, I was a little disappointed — not because I think Achebe doesn’t deserve an award for his body of work, but rather because he has received so many accolades and is already part of the World Literature canon. I’ve read Achebe, and I like Achebe, and I think more people should read him. I was just hoping that some lesser known international writer would receive the prize so I could have a new list of titles to work my way through, as I did with Kadare’s works. Instead, I could just nod my head and agree that Achebe’s work is important.

The disappointment I felt at Achebe’s win was insignificant in comparison to the utter despair that has accompanied each subsequent Man Booker International Prize announcement: Alice Munro in 2009, Philip Roth in 2011, and Lydia Davis in 2013. Again, I’m sure each of these writers is deserving of a prize for their body of work, but it is beginning to feel as though the MBI is the consolation prize for deserving authors who’ve been overlooked for the Booker because of the limitations of that prize (awarded only for novels by citizens of the UK, Commonwealth, and Rep. of Ireland – and so we have two short story writers and two Americans who would not qualify for the Booker winning the last three MBIs).

The Man Booker International Prize has betrayed readers all around the globe. Does it not seem strange that an “international” prize has been awarded four out of five times to a writer writing in English? Three times to North Americans? And only once to a writer that wasn’t already a household name in literary circles? Are there so few living authors whose work is available in translation that are worthy of an award for their body of work? They should just call it the Booker Minor Prize and jettison the facade of “internationalism”, because they are doing a great injustice to literatures in languages other than English by failing to acknowledge their contributions to the literary landscape of the world.

The Nobel Prize for Literature usually provides some succour for those of us who crave literature with an international flavour, but the award of the prize to Alice Munro in 2013, while well-deserved, robbed me of that pleasure. (I’m Canadian. I’m already familiar with Alice Munro. Sigh.) And so, I must seek out the smaller prizes for their winners and short lists to sate my appetite for world literature. The Neustadt Prize was awarded in 2013 to Mia Couto, a Mozambican author who writes in Portuguese, and although he is a writer I was already happily familiar with (his novels Sleepwalking Land and The Last Flight of the Flamingo on my list of favourites already), I was at least able to seek out his newest offering, The Tuner of Silences. But where is the recognition for the bodies of work produced by authors such as Park Wan-Suh (Korean), or Cesar Aira (Argentinian), Alessandro Baricco (Italian), Cees Nooteboom (Dutch), and countless others whose works have been widely available in English translation?

In 2005, I had hoped that the Man Booker International Prize was on track to correct this oversight, but alas, I must finally admit that I have been betrayed. The news that next year’s announcement will take place in Cape Town, South Africa does not give me much hope that things will change any time soon. In fact, if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer getting the prize (since I now have to take Doris Lessing out of the running, as she has so recently passed on) — again, deserving of a prize for their bodies of work, but again, writers whose works are written in English and are familiar ground in literary circles. My greatest hope is that the 2015 Man Booker International Prize will return to its 2005 form and declare a winner that I’ve never heard of before. But what are the odds?

Update (March 2015): Happily, it appears that the judges read my blog and took my advice to heart (because I am certain they take obscure Canadian bloggers very seriously). Read all about it here: How the Man Booker International Prize Redeemed Itself

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